A review of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014)

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) is easily the least of the Tom Clancy adaptations.  But that shouldn’t be enough to indict the film; the other film treatments of the author’s books have all been roundly excellent.  (Okay, 2002’s often-reviled “The Sum of All Fears” might be an exception, but I still like that flick even if I’m in the minority.)  I’d rate this outing a 6 out of 10.

It isn’t a bad movie … it’s just an average, generally undistinguished boilerplate spy thriller that seems half-heartedly rewritten as a reboot of the Clancy films.  Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp pay cursory attention to the title character’s background, and a key plot development from the books that I will not spoil here.  But the film utterly lacks the mood, detail or methodical plotting of anything Clancy created.

It’s all very generic stuff.   We’ve got a generic, telegenic, twenty-something action hero (Chris Pine), his generic hot girlfriend (Keira Knightley), the expected Russian bad guy (Kenneth Branagh) and a by-the-numbers climax — including the last-second requirement to divert a bomb from its target.  Rounding it all out is Kevin Costner, the most generic good guy ever to behave predictably on screen — he characteristically projects the expected, wholesome gravitas.  Even this film’s title is generic — it sounds like the name a marketing department would come up with for an entry in a video-game series.

There are plot elements that are painfully implausible, even by spy-movie standards.  Jack Ryan’s new girlfriend, for example, surprises him by arriving in Russia in a flourish of quirky-girlfriend spontaneity, only to discover his secret career and then be fully enlisted in a spy operation.  Branagh doubles as the movie’s director; his work here is surprisingly problematic.  This is yet another movie in which important action sequences are barely comprehensible because of frequent, rapid cuts.

Oh, well.  It certainly isn’t all bad.  There isn’t a single bad actor in the film, for example.  If I don’t like Branagh’s directing, I love his acting.  The guy is magnetic — he alternately and convincingly projects menace and charisma to perfection.  Alec Utgoff shines too, in a small role as a soft-spoken, ironically disarming Russian assassin.

People tend to either love or hate Costner.  I like him quite a bit.  No, he doesn’t always demonstrate an incredible range.  But his acting is competent and he’s likable and consistently convincing.  He’s the actor equivalent of that old American sedan that isn’t flashy but always starts reliably when you need it to get you to work.

Hey, you might like this movie far more than I did.  I was an obsessive fan of the books, so my standards may be a bit high where they are adapted to the screen.  Your mileage may vary.

 

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A short review of “Truth or Dare” (2018)

Blumhouse’s “Truth or Dare” (2018) isn’t high art, but it isn’t quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 for being a passably good fright flick.

It’s a gimmick horror film, but the gimmick kinda works –a powerful demon possesses an oral game of “truth or dare” — then follows its players home from vacation with lethal consequences. It’s actually not quite as stupid as it sounds; I had fun with the premise, which sounds like the basis for a decent “The X-Files” (1993-2018) episode.  An exposition-prone minor character explains to our protagonists late in the game that demons need not infect only people and objects, but also “ideas” like games or competitions.  The notion of an idea or a philosophy being demonically possessed has a hint of creative brilliance, and I’d love to see it fully developed in an intelligent, well written horror film.

Alas, this isn’t it.  And instead of lovable heroes like Mulder and Scully, we get a predictable, throwaway group of unlikable teens on spring break.  The movie’s most interesting character is the one it sets up as the stereotypical jerk, Ronnie, adroitly played by Sam Lerner.  The film would have been much better if it had fleshed him out as a three-dimensional character, and had the story revolve around him as a surprise anti-hero.

“Truth of Dare” also borrows maybe a bit too much from “It Follows” (2014) and “The Ring” films (2002-2017). Finally, it confuses the viewer with some head-scratching plot turns near its end.

Oh, well.  The movie still doesn’t deserve the hate it gets.  I figure it’s at least a fun time waster before bed on a weeknight.

 

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Episode 1 of “Black Summer” (2019) looks quite promising.

The hectic first episode of “Black Summer,” Netflix’ new zombie series, looks like ambitious stuff — it plays like a hybrid of “28 Days Later” (2002), “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “24” (2001-2014).  While it seems unlikely that this show can emulate the greatness of those classics, “Black Summer” still gets off to a damned good start.  I’d rate the first episode an 8 out of 10 for being a pretty lean and mean start to a decent zombie series.

Part of the episode’s appeal is its frantic vibe and format — something that seems like a deliberate contrast to “The Walking Dead’s” slowly placed, methodical epic.  The viewer is plopped down into the middle of a heartland neighborhood evacuation effort, three weeks into a zombie epidemic.  With a series of lengthy, real-time tracking shots, we race beside a collection of unconnected characters who are desperately trying to reach United States Army pickup point.

The zombies are few in number.  But they are the “high-speed zombies” that most modern horror viewers associate with Danny Boyle’s film, so the arrival of even one imperils the fleeing families.  The makeup effects are good, the transformation process is effectively rendered, and the show is satisfyingly scary.  The show makes this even more interesting by filming each character’s dash individually, and then showing them as discrete vignettes that are out of chronological order.  

The story is weakest when it slows down enough to allow its characters to talk.  The dialogue is truly bad, even if the quick action sequences make up for it.  (Has there ever been a more generic bribery offer, for example, then the one we see here?)  But this weakness doesn’t much affect the overall quality of an episode that follows so much action.

I was even more surprised that the episode works when I googled “Black Summer.”  The Netflix series is produced The Asylum, the film company notorious for “mockbusters” like “Dead Men Walking” (2005), “Snakes on a Train” (2006) and … sigh … “Transmorphers” (2007).  What’s more, “Black Summer” is intended as a prequel series to  The Asylum’s “Z Nation,” the lamentable horror-comedy zombie series that ran for three seasons on SyFy.  (It was so bad I couldn’t get through a single episode.)

It’s a weird world.

 

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Alpha on “The Walking Dead” was Agatha in “Minority Report” (2002).

Didn’t see that one coming.  (Waitaminute. Why are actors “on” shows, but “in” movies?)  The name of the actress is Samantha Morton.

She’s bald in both roles, and both roles depict her in dystopias.

And her characters are repeatedly referred to by others as “the strongest” member of their group.

AND both the show and the film place her in a key plot arc in which girls are taken from their mothers.  Damn.

 

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A short review of Episode 1 of “The Passage” (2019)

I’m all for a good vampire story.  But this isn’t a particularly good vampire story.

Or, at least not yet, it isn’t.  Don’t get me wrong — the premiere of “The Passage” wasn’t the worst hour of television I’ve ever seen.  I’d rate it a 5 out of 10 for being somewhat average.  It has two good leads in Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sidney.  Gosselaar is no Laurence Olivier, but he’s good enough, and he looks and fits the part.  He seems like an excellent physical actor in the premiere’s brief action sequences, which weren’t altogether bad.  Sidney is downright terrific — and she’s an adorable kid too.

The show also has a great plot setup going for it, which I won’t spoil here.  It’s based on a trilogy of dystopian horror novels by Justin Cronin, which actually sound like some quite interesting books.  There are even a couple of sly references to well known horror films like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) and “28 Days Later” (2002).

Regrettably, however, “The Passage” suffers a lot from rushed and clumsy storytelling.  The script is a poor one, with a lot of awkward exposition and forced emotion.  (It shares a weakness with this year’s vastly superior “Bird Box,” in that it tries to fit too much of its source material into too little screen time.)  It falls well short of being scary, too, which is probably what will alienate modern horror fans, unless it improves.  (This is a primetime network TV show, and isn’t any more frightening than the average episode of “Star Trek.”)

Weird world — Gosselar is none other than the Zack from “Saved By the Bell” (1989-1993).  And am I the only one that thinks he is the spitting image of Chris Pratt in a lot of shots.  I almost thought it was Pratt from the ads.

 

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A short review of “Patient Zero” (2018)

I’d be lying to you if I told you that “Patient Zero” (2018) is an especially good movie.  It isn’t.  It plays a lot like the classic “28 Days Later” (2002) would play if it were produced by the SyFy Channel, and by that I mean it generally is a poorly written, low-budget cheese-fest.  (This is one of those movies where even the score was kinda bad.)  Still, there were some hints of greatness hidden within this lackluster zombie movie — enough to save it from being a complete failure — and I would reluctantly rate it a 5 out of 10.  (Most other reviewers are not even that kind.)

First, it has some fine performers. These include two “Game of Thrones” actors who are always fun to watch — the mesmerizing Natalie Dormer and the consistently likable John Bradley.  (The latter seems to specialize in winning audiences over as the “hero’s-affable-friend” role.)  “Doctor Who” fans will of course recognize Matt Smith in the lead role.  But by far and away, they’re overshadowed by a fantastic performance by Stanley Tucci as the zombies’ surprisingly eloquent leader.  (More on that in a moment.)  Tucci is truly a great actor and he makes a perfectly menacing bad guy; his voice, diction and line delivery are goddam perfect.  His talent for voicing a magnetic, highly intelligent antagonist reminds me of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan on “The Walking Dead,” or one of the better “big bads” seen on “24” (2001 – 2014).

Second, there are some really clever ideas hiding under this thin, hasty script.  (I strongly get the sense that “Patient Zero” was a rush job for screenwriter Mike Le and director Vincent Newman.)  The hyper-kinetic zombies here are afflicted with “super-rabies” and are reminiscent of their ilk from “28 Days Later.”  But there is a truly intriguing plot conceit — their roars and screams are perfectly intelligible to Smith’s protagonist.  He speaks their “language” because he’s infected, but also mysteriously asymptomatic.  When he interrogates the zombies for the military, their interaction is filmed as normal dialogue (creating the opportunity for Tucci’s terrific turn here).  Then things get even more interesting when it’s demonstrated that the ostensibly mindless zombies are quite proficient at planning an attack.

I … might be treating this movie a bit charitably simply because I liked some of its ingredients.  Again, I don’t actually recommend it.  But your mileage may vary.

 

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